Chicago’s Biggest TikTok Sensation Is a Dad Who Works for the Electric Company
Sherman "Dilla" Thomas's history lessons on Chicagoland are attracting eyeballs from everyone — including Netflix
A 40-year-old father of seven, ComEd area operator and union chairman: It’s not the typical CV for a TikTok sensation, yet that’s a fairly precise — if not exhaustive — description of Sherman “Dilla” Thomas.
In one- to two-minute videos, 6figga_dilla drops history lessons about Chicagoland, from how each neighborhood got its name to the history of dibs (the famed Chicago winter parking system) to current events like this summer when the Chicago Sky won Chicago’s first WNBA title. He only started posting 14 months ago, but since then, Thomas’s videos have amassed over eight million views on TikTok — numbers that have attracted the attention of Netflix, who came knocking very recently, offering Dilla the opportunity to pitch a scripted show set in Chicago. Details are vague (and progress is currently underway) on a pilot script. The historical fiction series would follow a Chicagoan for an eight-episode arc as they live through a key Chicago event.
Born and raised on the South Side, the Auburn Gresham resident and self-taught historian set out to highlight some of the city’s most powerful stories on the famed video app after noticing how #Chicago videos on TikTok showcased food, drill music, “or how you can catch them bullets in these Chi Town streets.” His warm, easy delivery is part of what keeps you coming back: Referring to Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the first non-indigenous settler in Chicago — and a Black man — Thomas says “the brother owned everything from the mouth of the Chicago River to Chicago Avenue.”
At a time when so much of the national conversation around Chicago centers around violence, Thomas’s work is a balm. Who else could we trust to offer hard proof that Chicago is truly one of America’s greatest cities?
Below, we catch up with Thomas on his sudden fame and his lifelong love affair with the city he calls home.
InsideHook: Your rise has been meteoric. You’ve been featured on the The Today Show, Chicago Tonight, all the local network news stations, and written up in Chicago Sun Times, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender. What’s the goal with interviews like this?
Sherman “Dilla” Thomas: I take being a historian very seriously. Because of how I’m disseminating history, it kind of teeters on the influencer side a little, which I guess in 2021 is a compliment, but the historian is a permanent figure. When people are through with TikTok, they are still going to consider me a Chicago historian.
People treat places based on what they know about the place. So everywhere you look, when you think about Chicago’s South and West Side, you hear it’s crime-ridden, gang-infested — that’s partly why people act the way they act in those places. And so I want to do a better job of saying, “Hey, you could be anything” and showing real examples of the spaces we’re from.
I run into so many Chicagoans that go to a certain school and they can’t tell me anything about the person that the school is named after. It ain’t just Isaiah Thomas from the West Side, there were really big political movers and shakers! At one point, the West Side – Garfield Park and North Lawndale – was one of the strongest Democratic political precincts in the country. If people knew the power those spaces had … they changed national elections — and they still can. People just don’t know that.
What’s the story behind your TikTok handle?
My mom gave me the nickname Dilla because she said I could sell her anything, “like a used car dilla.” My dad was a legend — Vietnam veteran, homicide detective with the Chicago Police Department, security detail for Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer, and Carol Moseley Braun – and I’m trying to chase his legacy. When I hit six figures at ComEd, I went directly to the cemetery. I was so proud to talk to my dad because he never made six figures in his life. That’s 6figga_dilla.
There’ve been some amazing profiles on you, this one from Block Club Chicago is my favorite that gets into your past, but let’s talk about where you’re going. You were on The Kelly Clarkson Show recently and outlined your plan to offer tours of some of Chicago’s financially neglected areas. What’s the goal?
I want to be Chicago’s next cultural historian. I want to run a not-for-profit, and I want to spend the rest of my life changing the narrative.
I have a tour company, Chicago Mahogany tours. We did tours this summer and were pretty successful. I have applied for not-for-profit status, but that takes time. My goal is to take the profits from tours, get my own tour bus, and then work with not-for-profit organizations and local schools taking kids from these underserved areas on neighborhood tours. I don’t think every person that takes a history tour is going to want to change the world after, but conversations promote change.
None of this is about money. I’m not looking to get rich off it. I’m looking to change spaces so my kids can have the childhood I hear everybody has in other parts [of the city].
Why is Chicago the greatest city in the world?
Because we’re America’s baby! Everybody else was a thing before America. New York was New York before we had the Constitution. Even the cities that come immediately after [ratification] are still versions of another place, like St. Louis or New Jersey, they’re all [referencing] something else. Chicago’s got an American name – “Chicago” is a Native American word for smelly onions – we’re named for the place that we are. America was still up in arms with Britain, but after we won the War of 1812, we were like, “This America thing is gonna work.” Chicago was the first major city born after that moment, so I call it America’s baby – and you spoil your baby, that’s why all the cool stuff comes from here.
We invented park district field houses, the assembly line – it was the dis-assembly [of animals] in the stockyards that gave Henry Ford the idea to put things in a line. The car radio comes from here. [Skyscrapers, soap operas, the catcher’s mitt, roller derby, softball, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Harlem GlobeTrotters], even down to Butterfingers candy bars. It’s endless.
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